Review of God’s Own Country, by Ross Raisin

I’ve had Ross Raisin’s 2008 novel God’s Own Country on my shelves for some time, and it was only after hearing a little of a discussion about it on Radio 4’s Bookclub that I finally got around to reading it. I can’t think why it took me so long. This is an original, beautifully written and utterly compelling novel.
The story is told first person by Sam Marsdyke, a distinctly odd and lonely 19-year-old living in rural north Yorkshire with his farming parents.  Sam’s heavy dialect feels thoroughly authentic, even though some of the words, as Raisin admitted on Bookclub, are made up. I say, who cares?  When ‘the girl’ gazes across the moors with a ‘look of yonderment’, we know exactly what that means; and what better word for the clutter of ornamental bits and bobs adorning the walls of the village pub than ‘trunklements’?
The beauty of the area is skilfully evoked. The descriptions of the weather, the wildlife and the rolling moorland are remarkably vivid, and the wild landscape is as present and significant here as it was in Wuthering Heights. Sam spends his free time tramping the moors with his beloved dog, Sal, and initially, the way he torments the ‘towns’ – ramblers for whom he has utter contempt – by throwing a small stone at them from behind a wall, seems little more than mischievous, but soon, things take a much darker turn.

Sam’s internal monologue provides little snippets of information about his past, which, when we put them together, paint a disturbing picture. We learn early on that he was kicked out of school because of an assault on another pupil, and that his mother cried a lot at the time and still needs reassurance that she shouldn’t blame herself, rather that he ‘must’ve come out backward’. Sam imagines that when people look at him, they see the word ‘rapist’ on his forehead, and he’s convinced that everyone hates or is afraid of him. But he’s comfortable with animals and often holds imaginary conversations with them, as well as with the sun and moon, and even with everyday objects. He takes a liking to the new neighbours’ 15-year-old daughter, but he can’t think what to say to her.  ‘Talk to her, you doylem,’ her hair slide tells him. ‘She’ll bugger off if you don’t’.
At first, he considers her feelings; when she wants to watch the lambing, he’s conscious of how she might be affected by a stillbirth and he guesses she’d be upset if she knew that the dead lamb would normally be skinned, so he buries it instead. But as he becomes more obsessed with ‘the girl’ as he refers to her, it becomes clear that this can’t end well. One day, as he’s watching a ram servicing the ewes, his thoughts become confused, giving us the most chilling glimpse yet of what he is capable of: ‘The ewe just let him, not a sound, not a sign she was liking it or not.  I knew she was, mind – no matter she was sore from his clobbers, or that he was bruising on top her neck. She’d have tried to move off if she didn’t like it, she’d have struggled at least –  she didn’t do anything, though, except one point she gave out a small noise, quiet, but enough, and I knew she was liking it because her hand tightened into a fist, not gripping anything, just closing tight on itself so as to flesh went white rounds the knuckles and there was a chain of half moons across her palm when he’d finished and the hand went limp.’ I had to read this twice because I thought I missed something – then I realised that in fact, the sight of the animals mating had dredged up a memory of the assault.
Although Sam is in many ways a frightening character – sinister, disturbed and disturbing, and clearly capable of cruel and violent behaviour – I found myself feeling increasingly sorry for him as the novel progressed.  He presents his upbringing as harsh and his father as something of a brute, but we must bear in mind that Sam is a far from reliable narrator, and though we see that his father is certainly gruff, we note that he still uses the mug that Sam bought him when he was little. But whether or not Sam misreads the people around him,  what is certain is that he is unable to connect with them and is desperately lonely.
In the final scenes, where, without giving too much away, the extent of Sam ‘s, shall we say, ‘antisocial’ tendencies are revealed, I still felt sorry for him, because apart from anything else, he seemed completely oblivious to the distress he was causing, and almost bewildered by how things turned out.
Sam is a complex and fascinating character; he does bad things, but he got so under my skin that I’ve found my thoughts returning to him and his world again and again since I finished the novel.  God’s Own Country is occasionally funny, but mostly it’s dark and disturbing; it’s also tragic and with a sort of rough, weathered beauty. This is a novel that I’m pretty sure I’ll read a second time.
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